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'As Muslims, we are now respected'

September 27, 2006
Umar Qayam is a retired teacher who was born and brought up in Meenakshipuram. He went to primary school in the village and completed his high school in Tenkasi, 20 km away.

Along with his entire family, he converted to Islam in 1981, when he was 43 years old.

"We converted as we were not respected by other caste Hindus. My name then was Uma Devan. We did not convert to Christianity because there is caste distinction in that religion too."

Earlier, when they said they belonged to Meenakshipuram, he says people knew they belonged to the Scheduled Caste. Not anymore.

Qayam's eldest son Umar Farooq tends the family's three acres of land.

Qayam's two other sons, Zakir Hussain and Raja Shareef, work as labourers in Dubai while their wives live here.

Both older sons have studied till Class 12. While Zakir has been in Dubai for 10 years, Raja has been there for seven. They come home once in three years, but send money regularly to their families.

Umar Qayam has two married daughters. Rashia Begum lives with her family in the village while Mumtaz lives in Sankarakoil.

There are framed photographs of former Tamil Nadu chief ministers the late M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa in Qayam's house, which is called 'MGR Manzil'.

He says he is a strong supporter of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The village has 350 families, all related to each other. Thus, there is no communal tension.

Everybody attends a marriage in the village and everybody turns up when there is a death.

The Hindus do not enter the mosque and the Muslims do not enter the temple.

Says Umar Qayam, "Now, as Muslims, we are respected. We have marriages taking place between us and other Muslims from Kadayanallur, Vadakarrai, Tenkasi, Achanpudhur and other places."

The village's Muslims, he says, do not regret that they do not have reservations anymore in education and jobs. "Good students will get seats on merit while others will do farming or work as labourers."

Mohammad Ismail is one of those who converted in 1981. He is a farmer with an acre of land and has two children.

Ismail, who grows groundnut, udad and paddy, feels agriculture is not a reliable source of income as it is too dependent on the rains. There is no canal or lake nearby, so he cultivates his land only when there are rains. The well water is not sufficient for agriculture.

When he is not farming his land, he works on other fields in this and neighbouring villages. His wife Sabral Begum works along with him.

When the couple works for others he earns Rs 70 a day as wages and his wife gets Rs 35. He has never applied for a bank loan as he feels banks only lend money to big farmers.

Subramaniam Madan alias Sunderrajan had converted to Christianity. "I had gone to the Thirumalaikoil temple nearby but was not allowed inside, so I converted to Christianity." He is happy with his decision.

He has three sons and two daughters. Two of his sons, Raju and Alexander, refused to convert. Subramaniam says, "They did not want to convert and so they did not. I did not ask them why. It is their personal wish."

Many families have members belonging to different religions but it has not affected their relationships in any way.

Also see: Conversion attempts in the time of grief
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